Reflections on Worship Changes

Today in church, we made a couple of fairly minor tweaks to the way we do worship, and both of these were planned. We also made a third, much more unplanned change, and I want to reflect on all of this really quickly.

First a preamble: I was speaking with a council member a week or so ago, and our conversation turned, as it often does, to numbers. Both of us are well aware that numbers are, by no means, the best indicator of a congregation’s health. But we also know that numbers aren’t insignificant, if we’re going to continue to follow the model of the church that Lutherans have literally always used on this continent. Congregations are, by design, self-supporting. The offerings of the congregants pay for all of the ministries of the church, including the ministry of the called pastor. So, no, numbers aren’t insignificant.

But this conversation we were having about numbers led me to say, not for the first time and not in the first context, that tweaking things a little bit here or there isn’t going to bring about major change. We can change an entire worship style or worship time or worship location. Chances are, we are only going to continue to reach those we are already reaching. And that’s fine, if maintenance is what we’re after. But if we want change, we can’t just keep doing what we’ve always done with the same people we’ve always done it with. Doing what you’ve always done will continue to yield you what you’ve already gotten .. except with decreasing results.

I say all of that just to say that what we did in worship was really NOT change. It was tweaking. Minimal tweaking at that.

So what did we do? First thing: We moved away from what was rapidly becoming a 29-page bulletin with just about every word, every phrase, every response, every pause spelled out on the page. It was ridiculous. Not only was that an enormous squandering of resources in terms of paper and ink, but also it highlights the criticisms that some more Charismatic Christians level against liturgical churches like ours. When everything is spelled out, there’s little room for deviation and no room for the Spirit to move. Now, of course the Spirit will move where she will, but it’s not our job to make it harder for the Spirit to blow around. I’d like us to get out of the Spirit’s – and our own – way. Just a little. So we moved from the long-form bulletin to a severely foreshortened version, plus the use of the hymnal.

Second thing: We moved away from the Revised Common Lectionary to a Narrative Lectionary. The RCL has some issues. It consists of 4 readings: one from the “Old Testament,” a Psalm, a “New Testament” reading, and a Gospel reading. The OT reading is meant to link in some thematic way to the Gospel reading, but often it doesn’t do that in any clearly discernible way. The New Testament reading is supposed to fit in thematically, as well, but often it’s really just kind of wedged in there with seemingly no rhyme or reason, and then the text is chunked up in ways that absolutely rip the reading out of its context and make it less than worthless.

The Narrative Lectionary seeks to address that and other issues by reducing the number of readings to one. The one reading is longer and more contextualized than the 4 of the RCL, and it’s also meant to function over time, as the name implies, as a narrative. That is, there is a flow from week to week that is often lacking in the RCL. So we made that move today as well, and this was planned.

The more unplanned tweak we made existed as a germ in my head but I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull it off. But it involves the intercessory prayers, aka “The prayers of the people.” Well, “the way we’ve always done it” <ahem!> makes it absolutely the opposite of the prayers of the people. The people aren’t lifting up their concerns. Some writers of the prayers at Augsburg Fortress are writing those prayers. Don’t get me wrong: those are great prayers a lot of the time. But they aren’t necessarily the concerns of THIS people in THIS time and place. I want the people to offer THEIR prayers. And part of this involves us getting over ourselves and our hangups about praying in public. Look, I’m an introvert, and so I get this. But in Christ there is no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no male and female, and no introvert or extrovert. We are the body of Christ, and if we can’t be comfortable enough to pray in front of one another, then maybe we oughta ask ourselves just what the hell it is we really believe.

So here’s how I did it. First, I invited people to sing at the beginning of the prayers. This is a practice I picked up while serving a lovely community in North Tulsa, although I didn’t ask people to do it EXACTLY the way they do it in Tulsa. In that little church back there, the people come into the aisle and join hands as they pray. I didn’t force anyone to do that. For one thing, we’re too big for that to work. But I wanted to build in some small amount of comfort, even though prayer is absolutely not about comfort.

So we sang the Taize chant, “Oh, Lord, hear my prayer.” We sing that through twice. And then I lead a couple of prayers following the pattern from the hymnal: For the church universal, for the world, for the community, for the sick, for the congregation, and finally, for the departed in the faith. At the congregational level, I gave folks the opportunity to lift their prayers — THEIR prayers, not some pre-written ones by a stranger back in Minnesota. Today nobody took me up on it. I’m not disappointed. This was the first time, and it’s gonna take some time to get used to it. People still got prayed for, and God knew what we needed. No worries. We’ll get used to it.

At the end of the prayers of the people, we sing the Gospel classic “I Just Want to Thank You, Lord.”

How did things go with these little tweaks? Not terrible. I had one person explicitly say, “I am on board with these changes. I think it’s a good thing.” I heard – through the grapevine, of course – a few … maybe “complaint” is a strong word, but something *like complaint. “Why weren’t the words and music printed?” There’s an easy answer for that: we don’t need it. Taize chants are designed to be singable without musical notation. These are paperless songs. I taught folks, with my messed up and very non-professional voice, how to sing the second song. And guess what? They rocked it. Especially for the first time out. It was amazing. I was literally moved to tears. You know whose work that is? The Holy Spirit’s. That’s what it’s like when we get the heck out of the Spirits, and again, our own way.

Having a bulletin at all, or a hymnal, is a PREFERENCE. It is not a necessity. Every Lutheran knows – entirely without looking at a piece of paper – that when the worship leader says, “The Lord be with you,” we respond, “And also with you.” That doesn’t need to be written out. Every Lutheran knows that when a prayer is ending and the worship leader says, “We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior,” we say, “Amen.” No bulletin or hymnal is needed here. And what Lutheran of reading age doesn’t know the entirely of the Lord’s Prayer without reading the words? I mean, seriously. There is very little else in the bulletin or in the hymnal that needs to be spelled out. Maybe the Creed. We probably SHOULD know that by now, but there is the whole issue of the similarities between the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed that trip even me up from time to time. So, I don’t really mind having a resource to look to on that one. But not much else, really.

This is really a question of preference, and preference is a question of comfort. As a worship leader, I’m getting less and less interested in comfort. Anybody’s comfort. Including my own. That’s part of the internal motivation for all of these little tweaks. The world is not comfortable, and worship is something that propels us into the uncomfortable world. The more comfortable we get with being discomforted and uncomfortable, the better we will be as disciples and Gospel-bearers.

Someone said to me today, “Have you looked at us, though? We’re old. We can barely remember our own names!” Now, that was a joke, of course, but I also heard the issue behind it: We don’t want to learn new stuff. We don’t want change. Well, of course not! Nobody wants change! But guess what? Change comes whether we want it or not. We roll with it or we die. That’s it. And I don’t think anybody called me to this church to be a hospice chaplain for the congregation. That means we’re going to have to grow. And if we can’t grow spiritually, what makes us think we will grow in numbers? First comes the one and the other may follow. I don’t make up the rules. That’s just how it goes.

So, again, we made some tweaks. The tweaks might not be enough to save us. They rarely are. My old acquaintance, Jonathan Martin, wrote a book about surviving a shipwreck, and how when the boat comes apart, we find ourselves grasping for any piece of flotsam, just to stay afloat. We cling to anything we can to survive.

But didn’t Jesus say to us, “Whoever seeks to hold on to his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it?” (Hint: Yes, he did.) Isn’t baptism 100% about dying to the old and being dragged, gasping into the new? (Hint: Yes, it is.) So, why should we be content with survival when our promise is for thriving? Why should we hope for resuscitation when Jesus wants to raise us from the dead?

Believe me: changing a couple of little things in worship isn’t dying to our old self. It’s a minor tweak, in the grand scheme of things. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a question of preference and comfort and getting used to a different way to do things. So we don’t sing a Lamb of God. Jesus didn’t tell us to sing that. So we don’t have every word and thought and direction written in a bulletin. Jesus never said anything about bulletins or worship, except that true believers would worship, not in this place or the other, but in spirit. Let’s let the Spirit work. Let’s let the Spirit enliven OUR spirits. Let’s not quibble about what Paul might describe as “skubala.” (You can look that one up for yourselves.) And let’s just let these tweaks get into our systems. I think I know what I’m doing here. If I’m wrong, we can change things later. But we need to give it all a chance first.

Okay? Okay.

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